In recent years, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have increasingly relied upon private corporations for funding, as federal support for research has stagnated. With the support of for-profit companies, however, comes concern about potential conflicts of interest between the source of monetary support and the research itself. While we understand the need for securing private funds, we also believe that Harvard academics should exercise great caution to ensure that donors who fund research have no misaligned incentives or conflicts of interest and that funding sources are as transparent as possible.
As corporations such as Google and Aetna have signed partnerships with the School of Public Health, the possibility of donor influence on research results has risen considerably. For instance, the Aetna partnership, which aims to study employee happiness and health, will give researchers access to a wealth of data from voluntary surveys taken by Aetna’s employees over the next five years — but also comes with millions of dollars in funding. Such partnerships in research studies raise very serious questions about the potential for mismatched incentives.
These questions are particularly timely in the wake of two federal investigations focusing on a study that was being conducted by a Harvard Medical School associate professor. In that case, research about the effects of alcohol consumption was halted by the National Institutes of Health, after it was discovered that the associate professor leading the study had met repeatedly with alcohol industry leaders and stated that his research presented a “unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe.” This is a nightmare scenario; a researcher’s intention was questioned because of his contact with donors that have a direct stake in the study’s result. It is the situation that Harvard should take pains to avoid moving forward.
As a research institution whose credibility depends on its research being independent of influence from private industry, Harvard should take concrete steps to demonstrate that it is serious about the ethical issues underlying its research projects. Because the issues regarding these relationships are largely unregulated by the federal government, Harvard must take the lead itself in preventing affiliated researchers from displaying any sign of possible ethical impropriety; the University’s reputation for integrity is far more important than any researcher’s ability to attract money for a study.
Additionally, we call on the School of Public Health and the University at large to study recent ethical breaches and to conduct a thorough review to update University regulations on research; these regulations should clearly prevent faculty members from putting their studies in jeopardy through collaboration with donors who could be partial to certain research conclusions. With these steps, we also ask Harvard to reject funding from donors that might potentially involve conflicts of interest in order to avoid those types of situations altogether.
This staff editorial is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.